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State of the world's birds: not good

Mexican shorebird -- P100
A new report from BirdLife International indicates that the world's birds are not faring well, a troubling sign. (Andre Chung/MCT)

They are the quite-literal canaries in the non-literal coal mine, and researchers say their worsening fates are a troubling indicator of the world's overall environmental health.

Roughly one in eight bird species are threatened with extinction, according to a report on the state of the world's birds released Thursday. The report was written by BirdLife International, a partnership of conservation organizations, and published today during their annual meeting in Ottawa.

Birds are an excellent biodiversity bellwether, according to the report, because they are found in habitats all across the world, because they are a well-understood animal group, and because scientists don't add too many new species to their ranks, making them a stable population for year-to-year comparisons.

And those comparisons do not paint a rosy picture. More bird populations in Canada have declined since 1970 than improved, according to Environment Canada data. Waterfowl and raptors are doing better, thanks to conservation efforts, the report says, but shorebirds, aerial insect-eating birds, and grassland birds have all seen marked declines, all as a result of human activities.

In Asia, over half of all waterbird populations are declining as a result of vanishing wetland habitat. In Europe, there are 300 million fewer farmland birds today than there were in 1980.

Brazil alone, with it's super-biodiverse rainforests and other habitats, has 152 threatened bird species within its borders.

Logging, transport, and invasive species are all major pressures on bird populations. But the report singles out agriculture as the single biggest factor influencing birds' marked declines. The massive growth of cropland over the last century, and the expansion of industrial farming monocultures in recent years, have both served to negatively impact bird health.

Climate change will also pose a serious threat, the report says. Shifting climate patterns will alter bird habitats, and many birds have a narrow range of environmental tolerances and don't have the ability to adapt quickly. 

BirdLife International says $4 billion USD a year could improve the fate of all birds and stop human-caused extinctions, and a further $76 billion could "effectively protect and manage all known sites of global conservation significance" -- a bit of a slippery statement, but okay. They point out that global annual spending on softdrinks is $469 billion, global military spending is many times that, and the combined revenues of the world's ten largest companies is many, many, many times that again.

The group believes the solution is to protect areas they call Important Bird and Biodiversity Areas, or IBAs, a set of 12,000 regions identified as crucial to biodiversity that are strewn across the globe. Only 28% are currently protected.

The full report can be found here.

Kate Allen is the Star's science and technology reporter. Find her on Twitter at @katecallen.





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